Falcon Private bank could lose Swiss licence in wake of 1MDB case, sources say

ZURICH (Reuters) - Falcon Private Bank, a wealth manager that was at the centre of Malaysia’s 1MDB scandal, could lose its Swiss banking licence by the end of the week, two sources close to the situation told Reuters.

FILE PHOTO: The logo of Swiss Falcon Private Bank is seen at its headquarters in Zurich, Switzerland May 29, 2019. REUTERS/Arnd Wiegmann

Swiss financial markets watchdog FINMA could withdraw the licence for the private bank owned by Abu Dhabi state fund Mubadala Investment Company on the grounds that it has continuously failed to meet regulatory requirements, the sources said.

“Falcon employees are preparing to wind down the institute,” one of the people said. A social plan for employees losing their jobs was also in the works.

Falcon, FINMA and Mubadala all declined to comment.

Falcon gained global notoriety in 2015 after it was reported that investigators found nearly $700 million (564 million pounds) had been transferred from an account at the bank’s Singapore outpost to accounts in Malaysia linked to then Prime Minister Najib Razak.

Najib, now on trial for corruption in Malaysia, denies all charges against him.

FINMA found in 2016 that Falcon had violated money-laundering regulations by failing to carry out adequate background checks into transactions and business relationships associated with state fund 1MDB which were booked in Switzerland, Singapore and Hong Kong.

The watchdog told Falcon it would lose its licence if there was any repetition of the offence. Swiss federal prosecutors also opened a criminal investigation, which is ongoing.

Mubadala has since looked but failed to find any buyers for the business. A takeover of the entire bank has become unrealistic, but Falcon is continuing to try to sell parts of its customer base, three people said.

The bank, with headquarters in Zurich and other locations in Dubai and Luxembourg, is in talks with at least one interested party for such an asset deal whose outcome is uncertain.

Credit Suisse manager Walter Berchtold, who took over as Falcon boss in 2016, tried to build up business trading the cryptocurrency Bitcoin <BTC =>, but quarrelled with its then-owner International Petroleum Investment Company (IPIC), which has since merged into Mubadala.

He was succeeded in 2017 by Martin Keller, also a former Credit Suisse manager. With the help of the strategy consultant Boston Consulting Group, Keller tried again to rivitalise the bank’s business, but also fought strong headwinds.

As key employees and customers left the bank, Falcon bled billions of assets under management, which now likely stand in the low- to mid-single digit billions of Swiss francs. The outflows also caused a drop in earnings.

In 2019 it became apparent that implementing the new strategy was no longer realistic, two of the insiders said. “FINMA has given the bank three years to realign the business,” one of the sources said. “Apparently, it wasn’t happy with what was achieved.”

FINMA in October gave Falcon until the end of April, a deadline about to expire, one source said.

A separate probe by Singapore authorities over Falcon’s involvement in the 1MDB scandal resulted in the wealth manager’s being stripped of its local banking licence.

Additional reporting by Hadeel Al Sayegh; Writing by Michael Shields; Editing by Jan Harvey